Phoenix is a vivid, op­er­atic Joker, but movie is way too full of it­self

The Peterborough Examiner - - ARTS & LIFE - ANN HOR­NA­DAY THE WASH­ING­TON POST

From the hys­ter­i­cal lev­els of over­praise, con­cern-trolling and gen­eral hype that have greeted “Joker,” ca­sual ob­servers might as­sume that it’s ei­ther ge­nius, right-wing pro­pa­ganda or some di­a­bol­i­cally po­tent com­bi­na­tion thereof. The truth is, it’s just a movie — a fine movie, not a great movie, a movie that will please the spe­cific sub­cul­ture of fans it aims to ser­vice, while those who have sur­vived this long with­out car­ing about comic-book movies can go on not car­ing.

A grim, dis­tract­ingly de­riv­a­tive homage to 1970s movies at their grit­ti­est, “Joker” con­tin­ues the du­bi­ous darker-is­deeper tra­di­tion that Christo­pher Nolan helped cod­ify with his “Bat­man” films. Here, direc­tor Todd Phillips — best known for raunchy bro-downs such as “The Han­gover” — takes the tonal at­mos­phere to an even more grisly, ni­hilis­tic

level, throw­ing out cin­e­matic ref­er­ences as fast as he can look up Martin Scors­ese films.

“Joker” is a fla­grantly seedy movie, one that con­stantly evokes the garbage, ver­min and so­cial ap­a­thy that New York was known for at its worst. Wel­come to Gotham City, where the weak are killed and eaten.

And no one is weaker than Arthur Fleck, an as­pir­ing standup co­me­dian whose day job is work­ing as a clown, ei­ther en­ter­tain­ing kids in the hos­pi­tal or sign-wav­ing on crowded city streets. Por­trayed by Joaquin Phoenix in a florid, Pagli­acci-like turn as sad-clown­turned-mad-clown, Arthur is a pa­thetic man-child who lives with his mother (Frances Con­roy), jot­ting down idle thoughts and bad puns in his joke jour­nal (“I just hope my death makes more cents than my life”) and nurs­ing a de­luded am­bi­tion to ap­pear on a late-night show hosted by a comic named Mur­ray Franklin. The fact that Franklin is played by Robert De Niro is just one of many nods to Scors­ese, in this case to the bril­liant “King of Com­edy.” In that film, of course, De Niro played the un­hinged fan; now, he’s as­sum­ing the chair oc­cu­pied by Jerry Lewis in that film. The re­ver­sal is clever, but maybe too clever by half, as “Joker” dou­bles down on the movie quotes, in­vok­ing “Taxi Driver,” “Rag­ing Bull,” Char­lie Chap­lin’s “Mod­ern Times” and the en­tire ’70s canon of grimy ur­ban clas­sics. (Ap­par­ently Gotham has its ver­sion of Steven Sond­heim, too.)

Although Phillips can be com­mended for bor­row­ing from the best, the hat-tips be­come ex­haust­ing, as “Joker” be­gins to feel less like an orig­i­nal film (it’s the first pro­duc­tion that Warner Bros. is re­leas­ing on its la­bel of stand­alone films in­spired by DC Comics), and more like a fun­house re­flec­tion of im­ages and themes we’ve seen be­fore.

And, yes, it’s a re­flec­tion of our own mod­ern times, al­beit not a par­tic­u­larly in­sight­ful one. Draw­ing on such no­to­ri­ous his­tor­i­cal fig­ures as John Wayne Gacy and “sub­way vig­i­lante” Bernard Goetz, Phoenix cre­ates a char­ac­ter who epit­o­mizes the self-pity, en­ti­tle­ment and rage that have in­fected a small but dis­pro­por­tion­ately vo­cal (and psy­chot­i­cally vi­o­lent) co­hort of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

He doesn’t start out as a mis­cre­ant — it takes him be­ing vic­tim­ized by a wan­ton mug­ging to set him on that path — but by the time “Joker” reaches its an­ar­chic, blood-spat­tered cli­max, he’s be­come the avatar of a pop­ulist move­ment of like-minded losers, who in­stead of wield­ing torches and pitch­forks don green fright wigs and red noses.

As an ori­gin story, “Joker” is vivid and con­vinc­ing (and of­fers a tan­ta­liz­ingly fate­ful en­counter con­nect­ing Arthur to the wider uni­verse), but mostly it serves as a can­vas for Phoenix, who goes to stren­u­ous lengths to de­liver a per­for­mance of op­er­atic bom­bast. Alarm­ingly ema­ci­ated, af­fect­ing a ma­ni­a­cal laugh that Arthur barks out when he’s scared or an­gry or con­fused, he de­liv­ers a self-con­sciously larg­erthan-life per­for­mance in a role that sim­ply doesn’t war­rant the grav­i­tas af­forded to it by fans and film­mak­ers alike.

“Joker” is, fi­nally, so monotonous­ly grandiose and full of its own pre­ten­sions that it winds up feel­ing puny and pre­dictable. Like the anti-hero at its cen­tre, it’s a movie try­ing so hard to be cap­i­tal-b Big that it can’t help look­ing small.

NIKO TAVERNISE THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Joaquin Phoenix is get­ting rav­ing re­views for his per­for­mance in “Joker”. But that doesn’t make the movie great.

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